‘Agile’ working: copywriting and beyond

So, you’re putting together a big project, and you know there are a lot of moving parts. That means ‘agile’ is the way forward. And whether you’ll be using a copywriting agency or doing it in-house, you need to know what ‘agile’ means.

You might be a freelance copywriter who’s been brought in to make the magic happen or maybe you’re leading the project, buying in professional copywriting services. Regardless, the situation is likely to be the same. The copywriting is going to be a key part of a collaborative process. It’s all going to move fast to get the job finished and approved on time. 

Agile what?

For the uninitiated, agile working brings together everyone with an interest in the project, to co-develop it, throughout the process. And not just the people usually providing in-house or freelance copywriting services – creatives and representatives (‘stakeholders’) from other departments are also involved.

So, you might have people from marketing, brand, compliance and legal – as well as back-end programmers, the business unit lead – and more. Of course, as you’d expect, you’ll also have front-end design, UX and marketing copywriters. And they’ll all be coming together regularly, in the room or on screen, to guide the project.

Together is better

The idea is that, by meeting frequently and taking objectives one at a time, they can sign-off or develop work and solve problems quickly, to keep the project on track. It’s a great way for the freelance copywriter, or anyone else, to avoid wasting time, moving in the wrong direction. And it ensures that when you’re copywriting for websites or anything else, key milestones are met. When it works, it’s an effective, positive and energetic environment.

Who’s who and why?

There will be lots of other contributors; they split into two types, creatives and stakeholders. The creatives will be delivering freelance copywriting services (or in-house writers), UX designers, front-end designers and programmers.  They’ll take the brief and create their own first drafts to meet the objective for that part of the project. Before and during this process, the stakeholders (marketing, brand, business unit etc.), advise, answer questions, and support. Once this process is complete, they’ll be on-hand again, to sign off the copywriting or suggest developments/alternatives.

Ouch! My Toes!

This might sound like having your toes stepped on. But it’s actually rather helpful. It saves you a lot of time delivering content writing and guarantees the next iteration will be closer to perfect.

Stakeholders have valuable information and insight around the brand, user, market, competitors etc. They know they need to be available to feed into your work. Whether it’s content creation for websites or anything else, they’ll help develop it and, ultimately, sign it off.

All of which means you, as a professional copywriter, can move fast. And without wasting time on anything that isn’t going to fly. Which almost guarantees there will be no nasty surprises towards the end of the project.

Avoiding the mud

Prepare yourself, there will be challenging conversations. The priorities of the legal team, for example, will be different to those of the designer. And in turn, different to someone whose only priority might be copywriting for websites. So, you need to listen and compromise. Remember, digging your heels in is a great way to get stuck in the mud.

Make like Usain Bolt

Agile projects are mapped and run in ‘sprints’. These are short time periods, each with specific objectives for each creative. Hopefully, everyone has agreed that the length of these is realistic. The overall process is managed by an account manager or ‘scrum master’. They bring everyone together regularly, to keep the objectives for each sprint on track.

Big whiteboards and Sharpies are very important. Often, weekly/mid-sprint meetings only involve creatives. Issues or questions for the stakeholders are raised here and passed on by the scrum master, or directly by creatives. The stakeholders will join the meetings periodically, as each sprint is completed. Regular communications and meetings mean if it’s looking like a deadline is going to be missed, everyone can adjust and the project continues to move smoothly.

As a copywriting agency we’ve been involved in some fantastic agile working environments and seen amazing results. The key thing is that everyone needs to take responsibility and be up-front about progress, problems etc.

Of course, because our experience is in providing professional copywriting services, we’ve put together a few tips for writers on agile projects.

1. Take charge and ask questions

If you’re the lead writer on the project, step up. Don’t expect anyone to spoon-feed you the website content, app content or anything else. Start asking questions about what’s needed from your copywriting services. What, if anything, is pre-existing (e.g. tone of voice, content elsewhere you need to reflect)? What are the deadlines? Who needs to sign-off the content? Make sure they do it early, to avoid delays.

2. Control the content process

Check if anyone has done any app or website content planning. It’s likely that you, as the person delivering the professional copywriting services, will need to take control of the copywriting for websites, apps etc. And, crucially, take full responsibility for delivery of all copywriting.

Make sure you find out all the different content elements needed for the project (e.g. app page content, app notifications, emails triggered by buying, FAQs etc.). Check copywriting priorities with the scrum master. They may already have a plan for what the copywriter needs to do, when. If not, make one

3. Spreadsheets are your friends

You’ll need to do some mapping. Create a big-old copywriting spreadsheet that will connect all those wireframes and/or front-end designs with your content. You’ll need to ask the UX and/or design leads to put annotations on their documents. Use matching annotations on your content spreadsheet. This is your master copywriting document. It is vital, as it will allow whoever is uploading the content to know where your content goes. Make sure it all marries up. If it doesn’t, the copy will end up on the wrong page.

4. Build relationships early

Whether you’re copywriting for websites or anything else, you need to quickly find out who to lean on and get in touch. For example, if you’re undertaking financial copywriting, you’ll need the compliance and legal team’s help. They’ll sign off the SEO copywriting, content, and all the other copywriting. So get to know them and let them get to know you. Not just as the person delivering freelance copywriting services but as a human being.  This way you’ll get quick answers from them, and they’ll trust you to understand what they need.

Getting to know people will really help. Fist bumping is optional.

5. Think in sprints

Start thinking early about how fast you work. How much copywriting you are likely to get done in the upcoming sprint? Estimate carefully. Remember, it’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver on the marketing materials you’ll deliver, than the other way around. Factor in things like meetings, research time and how long it takes people to feedback; these can eat up your time.

6. Set deadlines for what you need

If your first draft of content relies on others delivering work (e.g. wireframes, facts from the product team) establish a time frame for when you will receive these. Make sure the person supplying them is aware – make this part of the copywriting spreadsheet. You can’t be sitting around twiddling thumbs and blaming others – you have to be in charge of the copywriting process. Always set deadlines for feedback.

7. UX and other people’s shoes

As an experienced copywriting agency, we know the UX (user experience) team is crucial. The best copywriting in the world is worthless if people can’t (or won’t want to) find it. So, work with UX to help create copywriting for websites that people understand and want to use. One of your key skills as a freelance copywriter should be putting yourself in other people’s shoes; consider the end-user. If the wireframes you’re looking at don’t make sense or follow a logical path for the target audience, say so. Be confident and willing to push back. But always suggest an alternative.

8. Design is beautiful

How the app/site looks has a huge impact on whether people actually use it. And whether they bother to read the creative copywriting you’ve worked so hard on. So, engage with the process. Feed-in, offer an opinion. Make sure that what’s on-screen feels right for the product, the user and what you’re all trying to achieve.

Ask the front-end designer to put your copy on the screen. You’ll be amazed at how different it can look and how little space you have. The earlier you can do this the better. Plus, if co-developers can view the copy in situ it’s easier for them to sign it off or offer useful suggestions.

9. Communicate; NOW

If what you’re writing is going to take longer than expected, let the team know early (there will be ample opportunities at progress meetings). Agile projects rely on everyone being honest. It’s fine to change direction, to need longer or want more information. But tell everyone immediately, so they can respond appropriately.

10. There go the goalposts

Let’s face it, projects have a way of shifting and morphing in unexpected ways. When the goalposts shift, your job as a professional writer is to be crystal clear about any impact on your project objectives, so everyone else can adjust with you.

So, there you have it, some (hopefully) useful tips to help you make a success of your agile project.

Good luck!

Alex Genn

View posts by Alex Genn
I run a team of 25 senior-level copywriters and am myself a professional copywriter with over 15 years' experience.
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